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Volume 12, 2008

  
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Anthony W. Lee, A Shoemaker’s Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. $45.00 / 32.50 cloth). Pp. 314. ISBN 978-0-691-13325-6.

 

In an ingenious interweaving of narrative and photography, A Shoemaker’s Story by Anthony W. Lee recounts an episode in the convoluted history of migration in North America. Using image not simply as a source of archival illustration, but as a mode of capturing visual and industrial culture in the years following the Civil War, the book combines the reportage and storytelling to provide a vivid account of US social history. The arrival of the Chinese workers is thus not only a historic moment in the life of the small community of North Adams, Massachusetts, it also epitomizes the major changes taking place in post-civil war American society during the industrialization age. The book is organized in four distinct parts: “What the Shoe Manufacturer Saw,” “What the Photographers Saw,” “What the Crispins Saw,” “What the Chinese Saw.” The gaze is constantly at the core of the enterprise, while each part includes a different perspective on the same events. This is a complex and insightful way of recapturing the past, making sense of it through several perspectives that contribute to an accurate picture of a small community at a particular moment in time. It is a microscopic analysis of a larger historical context that lends itself to explications and exemplification in words and pictures. The photographs, illustrations and cartoons that are brought to life represent not merely a means of endorsing the narrative line but constitute themselves in narratives in their own right, and hence a mode of mediating between past and present. In the author’s description, “by trying to understand the photograph from many points of view we have gained some measure of the main characters who participated in its historical place and time and of the dynamic and complicated relations between them” (264). The integrated method Lee adopts offers a powerful insight into the complicated relationships between labour, class and race, compelling one to bear witness to the plight of his protagonists.

          Early photography is consequently viewed not as an art form, but as indicative of a given social context. People wanted photographers to capture them in certain hypostases, on different occasions, seeking to secure an image of themselves that would attest their place in society. On the other hand, photography artists were fascinated by phenomena such as industrialization or mass reproduction. The modernity of the approach lies, Lees emphasizes, in the way photographers understood that aesthetic and technological progress suited this new form of representation. Subjects such as shoemakers and their life in a small community, as well as other subjects related to the process of industrialization, implicitly made of photography something to be distributed and reproduced in a capitalist society that turned almost everything into a business. One of the merits of the book is showing how photography became a profession, a business and a way in which both sitters and photographers expressed themselves, acquiring in the process a marketing function that enabled factory owners, local workers or (im)migrants to showcase themselves.

          With an extraordinary knack for historicizing the development of photography in early industrial United States, Lee contextualises the story of migrants coming from Quebec and China and embarks upon a comparative study of these two communities settled in North Adams during the nineteenth century, appropriately deploying a multiperspectival type of writing that uses memory as a filter. The elements of visual archive that he displays and the numerous written sources he cites form an attempt at retelling history in an impartial way. He succeeds in describing both in images and in writing the life of two communities that come from completely different cultures, yet adapt and adopt the American lifestyle of their time. As the British government did not recognize Francophone interests in Canada, some of the French Canadians became emigrants. They left behind an agricultural way of life to make a better living in the early capitalist American urban spaces. In so doing, they assumed a diasporic condition inseparable from the reconstruction of the United States after the Civil War. While different in the route they take, the story of the Chinese provides the reader with a similar mode of re-enactment. Chinese immigrants had to make longer journeys to reach the American land and faced at times dramatic survival challenges. They came from a very diverse country where most of them spoke a variety of dialects: “the Pearl Delta Chinese were on the whole more fractured than the Quebecois French” (203). Although they strove to embrace modernity and eventually adapted to the Western way of life, the Americans and French Canadians living in North Adams often regarded them as being strikebreakers, cheap labour and outsiders. It is in observing the tension involved in the acculturation process that Lee’s main research interest lies.

          Anthony W. Lee writes a vibrant chapter in the history of migration and photography during the nineteenth century. Well structured and accurately documented, his book is keenly attentive to detail, and its role in the shaping of life stories and their social contexts. The eloquent anamnesis Lee traces in this study invites readers to consider what may have otherwise appeared as isolated testimonials of migration, raising awareness to how tales such as these encapsulate much of the development of modern western lifestyle.

 

ANAMARIA ENESCU

Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu

 

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